Taika Waititi is an off-kilter film director. The horror-comedy film What We Do in the Shadows received critical acclaim and helped launch him into directing the blockbuster comedy-superhero film Thor: Ragnarok. His films are quirky and outlandish and yet accomplish so without feeling mean-spirited, and he is the type of director I would like to see more of. When I first heard about Jojo Rabbit, I was surprised and intrigued. I like when talented creators make something out of absurdist concepts, like Swiss Army Man, for example, but I knew it would be a film that needed a level of discipline and balance in-order to succeed.
Jojo Rabbit is about a young boy named Johannes Betzler living in Nazi Germany during the later stages of World War II with his mother, Rosie. Johannes covets Adolf Hitler as a role-model and oftentimes even sees him as an imaginary friend; a dimwitted version portrayed by actor-director Taika Waititi. The film sees him struggle with his instilled principles as he discovers his mother is harboring a Jewish girl from the Nazis. As a member of the Hitler Youth, the propaganda he has been met with has cut-deep, with his perception of Jewish people being exaggerated and more resembling of a fairy tale monster, but his relationship with the Jewish girl brings him face-to-face with the human-being he has been programmed to hate. The film blends elements of comedy and drama, with both elements feeling central and distinctive in the film. This isn’t a film you’d watch for a light-heart comedy nor is it a gut-wrenching depiction of World War II – it lands squarely somewhere in the middle of that. The film is based on a novel called Caging Skies by Christine Leunens.
Jojo Rabbit received generally positive reviews from critics and moviegoers, grossing over eighty million at the worldwide box office and winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
I can’t say I knew exactly what I expected from this film heading in beyond a general idea. It’s after having watched the film I find it worth acknowledging that it neither obeys purely as a comedy or as a drama, but that it delivers considerably more in-terms of drama than I anticipated. Something anyone would be afraid of is that this film would make for an offensive, shock-humor film. Hitler was a dictator whose ideology and military operations were central in the perpetration of the Holocaust – a tragic, cruel event that resulted in the death of some six million Jewish people. This means that he isn’t exactly the ideal candidate for a light-heart comedy (anywhere remember that British sitcom “Heil Honey I’m Home!”?), but, in the end, that isn’t what Jojo Rabbit intends to accomplish.
This is a young boy’s brain-washed perception of the Jewish people and his misguided worship of a cruel, evil man. When confronted with his belief system, like a house of cards, it falls down. The film is predictable in that respect, but predictability isn’t inherently bad. The high-concept surreal novelty carries the film in the early-going, but it’s the dramatic depth of Jojo’s relationship with his mother and the young-girl in the attic that earns the film’s keep beyond that. The film takes hold of dark subject-matter and brings it to the light, bolstered by humor and a lot of heart. It is a film that, aside from some specifics, other-wise, feels hopeful and optimistic, and that’s an interesting emotion to create given the circumstances and the events of this film. It meets its dark satire with human understanding.
The performances are solid, but I would argue they aren’t the largest takeaway I had for the film. Roman Griffin Davis tackles the role as Johannes and does well at inducing an emotional-quality somewhere between pity and disdain. You dislike him for his blind hatred, but you feel saddened because he is young and manipulated. Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson portrays his mother, doing her best to love him despite the beliefs he carries and trying to bring the best out of him. Taika Waititi’s performance as Hitler makes the Nazi dictator buffoonish and like something out of a goofy cartoon, which offers most of the comedic-relief for the film. Meanwhile, it’s Thomasin McKenzie as the young Jewish girl who is breaking beneath the weight of her crashing world, but trying to undo what has been done to him.
The film is filled to the brim with absurdist comedy, but feels so wrongful that every comment feels like it is done with a wink and a nod to the audience as its committed.
Jojo Rabbit is a film that works despite itself. This isn’t to say a funny film shouldn’t have been possible about the Holocaust, because everything, especially tragedy, has humor to be found in it, no different than the scene in Django Unchained when they can’t see out the eye-holes of the KKK garb. What is special about Jojo Rabbit is what it succeeds at accomplishing – not only is it funny and goofy, the way it doesn’t pan away from real-life horror at the expense of that, and the way it has something heartwarming to say, that’s what’s special about it.